Friday, January 3, 2014

"What's Your Plan For Making This Happen?"

Originally published here in July 2008. Not much has changed. We're still blindly forging on.

Alexander Russo asks "What's Your Plan For Making This Happen?"
The big problem in education reform right now isn't that there aren't any good ideas out there about what to do to make things better, but that no one has any real idea how to get them moving.
I think he's got it backwards. We have plenty of people willing to "make this happen" on a small scale. That's not difficult. The problem is that no one asks whether the change SHOULD happen. We go merrily on changing things every year, instituting reforms and rejiggering the educational process constantly.

We do "academic teams," "cross-curricular work," "differentiated instruction." We do "literacy across the curriculum" but not "math or science or history or art across the curriculum". We remove art and music to prepare for tests, add art and music to make a more well-rounded individual. We drop Hamlet and MacBeth and Mythology, or we don't. We put kids into cohorts of 20 for every course of their day. We STEP them up from the course they should be in to the course we'd like them in and then we place them in remediation because they need more help.

We've tried integrated math, sequential math, Integrated algebra, SIMMS, Univ. of Chicago vs Saxon. We try changing the order of the courses from "A1, Geom, A2" to "Geom, A1,A2" or "A1,A2,Geom."

Then, there's the grading system behind the report cards. We tried to change to a 1,2,3,4 grading system with rubrics and then found out that our parents hated the idea. They didn't want lengthy rubrics full of lists of standards and individual grades, nor did they like the idea that 1 was the lowest you could get. "If he does nothing, he shouldn't get points for it! Those averages mean nothing now!"

So we changed back.  For a while.
We've rewritten the curriculum at least seven times in my experience and done curriculum maps in four different systems.The only thing that seems to change is the logo: now it has "Building Standards-Compliant Systems" as a tagline. (Update: Looking at this now, I notice they've updated the logo to Common Core ... awesome. That will make the maps more relevant for today's learners).

We integrate technology before most teachers have a clue what they're doing with it. We lessen the need for brains and glorify button-pushing or we improve the educational methodologies by implementing technological pedagogy to teach the 21st century student.

We changed to 4x4 block scheduling, or modified block, or traditional 40, traditional 50, or 5x60s. We have single-sex or not, We try charter schools, magnet schools, engineering only school, KIPP schools.

For what? Are we sure any of it works?


Have we looked at anything before and after each "revolution" to see if anything, in fact, did change? And for the better?


We change everything in education without ever examining the results of the change. The most common "evidence" I have heard as justification is "My students seem to like it better. One kid said to me just this month, 'This is cool.'"
This is the only business that uses case-control as its top sampling method, if it uses any scientific studies at all. That's nuts.
Then the anti-public school activists chime in.
"If schools were free-market, competition-based entities that had to succeed or fail based on their own merits and their effectiveness for their customers, we would quickly zero in on the most effective teaching techniques. We would stick with what is proven, and what works, because whatever doesn't work would quickly be rejected by patrons and customers -- if only choice were an option."
I've talked about "choice" before. Choice is the parents using sketchy information to make dubious choices. The only saving grace is that they are at least invested in the children they're trying to place.

If there anything that the free-market teaches us, it should be that those who are trying to make a profit will lie or stretch the truth whenever they can. When the 13 billion dollar fine for improper practices is less than 1/4th of the money the company set aside to fight the charges, you should realize that the free-market is not the friend to the consumer. As a former private school admin, I can tell you that private schools are no different from Goldman-Sachs, except in size.

Their methods are traditional, not because it's best, but because it doesn't scare away the paying customers. Decisions are made for the benefit of the school, not for the benefit of the students. (Although if the students DO benefit, they'll take every opportunity to remind everyone how wonderful they were to make those "obvious" changes and portray themselves as better than the other private schools. The opinion that public schools were cesspits filled with poor people's stupid children went unsaid, but was understood by all because "Ivy-Covered Academy" was and is a naturally superior traditional school, with traditional values.).

But we're still dancing around the real problem.

Russo goes on
Take any number of interesting proposals -- national standards, weighted student funding, differential pay, community schools, inter-district choice, universal preschool -- and what you'll see are lots of arguments and policy specifics but no real plan for getting any of these things implemented in the real world. (You know, enacted into law. Paid for.)
We're doing research without knowing what we're looking for.

What would be nice is if you could first define the goal. Then define your method of measuring that goal. Finally, see if your changes progress you towards that goal. Then you can make all the changes you want.

Until we actually do some research with appropriate statistical methods, improving education in America will remain guess- and- check.

The problem is, of course, that most of your guesses are wrong and you're not checking. Worse than that, they're not your kids.


  1. Hear, hear.

    Leaving things alone for a while, observing, thinking, discussing...

    All good things that require a very different sort of plan.

  2. Appropriate statistical methods would make a huge difference. Unfortunately, no one except maybe a stats teacher on campus has any clue what that actually means. I've been getting an M.A. with a primary specialization in statistics and research methodologies on top of my education degree and all I can say is we're doing it all so very, very wrong. We make decisions based on numbers no statistician would dare to because they are either collected poorly or have not been subjected to any actual test that shows you can trust what you're looking at.

    I tried explaining that to some colleagues of mine. They shrugged and said that's just the way it is. I say we can do things differently, but the first thing is to slow down the pace of reform. You can't develop a decent study of what is and what is not working without appropriate numbers - cases and time. And that means trying something with a commitment of at least a few years and not a few days or months.

    So yeah, that's not happening any time soon. Thanks for the great post though.

  3. AND, the few things that have been proven to work (Direct Instruction, synthetic phonics, a few others) are rejected because the Ed establishment doesn't like them.

  4. Sorry, friend. "AND, the few things that have been proven to work (Direct Instruction, synthetic phonics, a few others) are rejected because the Ed establishment doesn't like them." is simply not correct.

    It is the Ed establishment that is promoting all of these reforms. It's just that each reform has its own subset of the establishment to scream from the rooftops and con the administrators.

    My problem has always been that we can't separate the good from the bad, and the research is sorely lacking.

  5. With all due respect, Curmudgeon, there is good research to support both Direct Instruction and synthetic phonics. Research that goes back decades. The Ed establishment resists these pedagogies because they are not "holistic" enough, and require fidelity in implementation. And supposedly stifle children's creativity.

  6. If schools were free-market, competition-based entities that had to succeed or fail based on their own merits and their effectiveness for their customers, we would quickly zero in on the most effective teaching techniques. We would stick with what is proven, and what works, because whatever doesn't work would quickly be rejected by patrons and customers -- if only choice were an option.

    Innovators would be rewarded by new markets if they're effective, or by bankruptcy and closure if they're not. This is called "risk". Risk is a healthy and effective way to regulate the free market. But it is immoral to play "risk" with people's children and taxpayer's money in a monopolistic system such as our government school system has become.

  7. More accurately, if schools were free-market, competition based entities ruled under capitalistic ideals, they would quickly zero in on the most profitable areas of the market: the children of the wealthy.

    The rest ... tough.

    The public school system is the way it is because it is the system that survived all of the shuffle. The private schools were created and they charged money and not everyone could attend ... and the towns realized that there were a lot of kids getting nothing, so they banded together and made a local school. The current system is the logical end result of that process.

    Innovation in education is extremely difficult because the cause-effect is separated by months if not years in time> Secondly, pinpointing the cause is not as easy as the reformers would have you believe.

    1. Your cynical take on capitalism and free markets is disappointing.

      However, we could still rely on free markets to guide and encourage excellence while still ensuring that the less fortunate receive a proper education by providing vouchers, redeemable anywhere good education is sold.

      I believe choice and competition is essential. Public schools are stagnating because there are no dynamic forces compelling them to perform. Agenda-driven, P.C. government standards and mandates aren't an effective alternative. In fact, when they aren't making the problem worse, they are being the problem itself.

  8. Free markets aren't the answer for education because the outcomes are opaque. As a parent, you want to know if your child is getting the best education they can get--but how do you find that out? Do you rely on the teacher? The standardized test? What do you compare against? Sometimes, you don't know for several years if your child is on track or behind. If you're not happy with the school you have, how do you know if the next school would have been better. Free markets only work if the consumers can tell which choices are working and which aren't. If your child turns out, at age 18, to not be ready for college (but you thought they were, because that's what the school was telling you) it's too late to spend your money elsewhere.